Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Frugal folly? Testing the cheap yarns (so you don't have to!)

This financial climate is truly something else. There is barely a family, person, sector or industry that hasn't been caught in its wake. I see it in the dwindling number of shop sales,and I feel it trying to do a supermarket shop that costs more than it did over three years of pay-freezes ago.

I think perhaps small craft businesses are particularly vulnerable, specialising in a market which can perhaps often be described as 'luxury'. After all, knitted and crocheted clothes and items (to focus on my own interest) can be sought easily and cheaply from any low-end town stall or cheap clothing outlet in the country. They're usually mass produced, lack quality and acquire an odd shape if merely walked past a room with a washing machine in it. But they're there; cheap, warm and functional.

So what can be done? Well, knitting and crocheting is becoming ever more popular (a positive consequence, I think, of austerity) and supplies are not cheap. Potentially, a good opportunity exists for suppliers who manage to find those elusive quality products with a wholesaler that are discounted enough to get a reasonable mark up.

And the rest of us? Therein lies the rub. I suspect that buyers of handcraft turn to this market specifically for quality, for uniqueness and perhaps to some extent, for status. So it wouldn't really be in anybody's interest to scrimp on the quality of supplies.

Or would it? Perhaps there is room to manouvere after all. Perhaps once people who love handmade items have already, along with everyone else, settled for cheaper rather than popular brands, they may find a willingness to keep exquisite workmanship and uniqueness in a product but, maybe, accept a lower fabric quality? Perhaps it's time to nudge the zeitgeist.

Time to investigate...

In my little corner of Essex (I'm originally from Newcastle) I often see older ladies carrying bagfuls of dodgy looking yarns, no doubt to be knitted up into scratchy blankets and clothes for infants. The 'Keep Calm and Carry On' phenomena epitomises the hark-back to other austere times, and maybe with yarn, we have something to learn from the previous generation after all. One way to find out...I'm going to buy my yarn where they buy theirs, so you don't have to!

1) Wilkinsons
This seemed as good as place as any to start, with 'Yarnfair' at £1.35 for a 100g skein to make a granny blanket (what else!). I made a smallish blanket of six large squares; it felt slighly coarse on the fingers to work but it looked fine, decoratively speaking. The verdict has to be no, though. It doesn't feel particularly cosy to snuggle into, and worse, only a couple of weeks after completion the thing started to fall apart with wear and tear. Admittedly, the Tinky Tonk (aged 2.5 years) had a lot to do with it, but I would not expect a blanket of any worth to fail the toddler test.

2) QD

You're mostly going to find 'Robin' in QD, but also some soft feather type scarf yarns that I've seen crocheted into some beautiful open-weave evening shawls. There's also a fair selection of Wendy's. I plumped for a plain Robin 4ply in the most beautiful dark crimson I could find and decided to crochet a lacy scarf.

This is still only half finished, and trying it on doesn't bring that same self-satisfied 'oohh!' that you get when putting on something soft and fabulous, but it will keep the wind off your neck without itching and it looks great. However, the lesser quality of the feel means that I won't be listing this in my shop. Will I wear it myself? You betcha!

3) Independant High Street Haberdashery
You know the sort of establishment; full of folk perusing files full of knitting patterns, all of which look like the same baby matinee jacket from the seventies. Indispensable for your bits of elastic, buttons and sewing supplies, but yarn? Hmmm.

I had cause to use a few skeins of the standard chunky Robins it sells last year when I had to quickly knock up a Victorian style shawl for a friend who does very rare and occasional 'Jack the Ripper' walks in Whitechapel. He planned to humourously depict a victorian lady falling foul of Jack (played by my own parter, 'Victorian Dad') in the pub venue hired for the post-walk talk.

Verdict? Fab! The shawl has been adopted by the Tinky Tonk, who uses it as a blanket. It's also handy as something to tie around my shoulders when it's a bit nippy; it's been much loved. It looks a bit worse for wear now though, but not unreasonably so given it's usage. Would I list it in my shop? No. Shawls, yes, in fact to this day a shawl was my fastest selling item, but not in this material.

4) Ebay
I have actually sourced yarn for shop use before, the trick is to do your research and check often. Unfortunately, you will mostly find either cheap deals on vast quantities of inferior quality yarn, or you'll find excellent quality stuff at the same or, more often, a higher price than your average online wholesaler.

Where Ebay comes into its own though, is where you get long-time knitters having a destash for space rather than profit, where there are occasionally some no-longer-produced gems to be found

I got a small stash of some gorgeous turquoise brushed 4ply. You know, I might actually list the result in my shop. It's acrylic, but it's soft and delicate and it worked up beautifully into a gorgeous shell wrap (pictured). I also got a few bits of lovely looking dark green skeins of Patons that I worked into a ruffle scarf. This looks fab but feels scratchy; I'll be keeping it myself.

Verdict? Well worth a look now and again; but this by no means provides a reliable or steady stock supply.

5) Charity Shops
I would imagine that as a supply, this would suffer from the same lack of consistency as Ebay. I'm not knocking it completely though as my sister, always lucky at bargin hunting, once bought me a completely gorgeous batch of brushed 4ply (okay, so I have a thing for brushed 4ply!) from a charity shop in Newcastle that I adored.

Deciding to have a bit of a root through myself, I ventured into the only charity shop on my High Street with a knitting section. And what did I find? Every skanky, greasy, grubby knotted leftover-end-of-skein piece I picked up was infiltrated by (and I'm so sorry!) pubes. Pubes. Abort, abort, abort!!!

The places I didn't try, being a little disheartened by now, were Aldi, Poundstrechers and Poundland. Mostly because they all seemed to carry that line of furry yarn mostly found in 'make your own scarf starter kits', which is really all it's good for. And being neither a starter nor lacking in scarves, I gave them a miss.

In summary: yes, times are hard, however if gorgeously fabulous little craft businesses don't go with unique and quality products, then they're not really fit for purpose. The best workmanship can't stop an inferior quality blanket from wearing quickly away, and the most beautiful stitches will still give a baby a rash if made by coarse wool.

Is there room for acrylics? Yes, absolutely! I genuinely don't mean to come across as sniffy about anything other than spun silk; I'm a fan of decent, soft and quality acrylic myself. I never make my toddler anything made of any other fabric, in fact. However business crafters that cater for children and babies have always sourced decent acrylics; that hasn't changed. But lowering quality in light of the recession - I have to say; bad idea. Our peers from the previous generation could teach us a thing, certainly, about clothing our own families; but perhaps not for those of us who sell on our creations.

Yes, there may be instances where it's possible to lower quality for a craft business, but as a wider strategy it's dubious. Cheaply made knitted items are continually churned off factory lines in numbers that a hand crafter couldn't, and shouldn't, compete with. That's not what we do.

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